Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A farewell to alms(houses). Revised April 2011

From my window I can see an 18th town-house bearing the date: 1797. It formed part of a £600 bequest left by a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Simon to the poor of the parish in 1801. According to the 1912 edition of “A History of the County of Surrey” there was sufficient money for six almshouses to be founded. Unfortunately these fell into a state of dilapidation, as it proved impossible find suitable tenants whilst the land remained subject to a legal dispute. I have no idea what happened to the other 5 almshouses. I do know I received a shock one day when I looked out of my window and it seemed as if a duplicate almshouse had sprung up behind the Georgian original overnight. The building work on the new almshouse must have been hidden by trees, which I presume were later cut down in a single day.

Mrs Simon was sometimes referred to as the Widow Simon. In this instance the widow’s mite seems modest compared with that of the former Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Geffrye, whose baroque almshouses at Shoreditch have afforded me such pleasure over the years. Certainly the architecture of the widow’s remaining almshouse is very bland and but for the date on the front of the building, it would be hard to appreciate its relative age. I have often wondered whether it has sustained significant damage over the centuries and consequently been partly rebuilt, as its bricks seem a very different colour to those of other 18th century building in the vicinity.

Another set of splendid almshouses I have been fortunate enough to visit were built by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, in 1596. I first spied these almshouses through a closed wrought iron gate. It seemed extraordinary that such a place could survive into the 21st century amongst modern shopping centres and office blocks, having real commercial potential if redeveloped. Yet it is precisely because of its origins that it has survived. Originally known as the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, the almshouses stand in the centre of Croydon, close to where the medieval summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury is also to be found. Little did he know it but John Whitgift left land which, in later centuries, would prove to be prime retail estate. As a result, the Archbishop’s legacy continues to generate huge sums of money centuries after his demise. Therefore, the foundation set up in his name does not need to sell the land on which the almshouses were built to raise funds for their continuance. Built around an enclosed and gated quadrangle, the almshouses are afforded far more privacy and security than was ever available to the pensioners at Shoreditch in later years.

Other than forming an enclosed quadrangle, the original almshouses at Croydon followed a similar pattern to those of Sir Geffrye’s at Shoreditch (the latter has been turned into the Geffrye Museum). They consisted of separate houses, (9 to Shoreditch’s 14) accessed by an external door leading directly onto the quadrangle. Likewise, each house contained four rooms, one room per pensioner or couple. There was also a chapel. The major difference to Sir Geffrye’s almshouses at Shoreditch is that the Archbishop’s still function as almshouses today. Naturally, they have been adapted to modern living. I would not be averse to spending my declining years in such congenial surroundings, given my private passion for history and architecture.

If they were fitted with modern conveniences (in every sense of the word) I would be even more than happy to take up residence at one of Sir Robert’s almshouses. Turned into separate townhouses, their elegant exteriors would make them highly desirable. Their interiors are not to be sniffed at either. Although only granted one room for their personal use, the height and generous proportions of the rooms would make the pensioners the envy of many a modern bed-sit dweller. They certainly made my former bed-sit seem more akin to a box room in terms of size. Each room had a closet where food could be stored and prepared. Again, the closet was bigger than my former kitchenette. The plain shaker-style cupboards and beech countertops echo those in the kitchen of my current flat. The rooms had open fireplaces, where food and water could be cooked or boiled. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of having working open fireplaces in the house. We had them in my original childhood home, although the sheer daily drudgery of looking after them was alleviated by storage heaters, a luxury not afforded to Sir Geffrye’s pensioners of course. Even in the early 20th century, their rooms still did not have piped water, although a cold war tap was introduced into the basement of each house in the late 19th century. At least this meant that the occupants no longer had to haul water indoors from the pumps outside for their everyday use. In addition, an internal water closet was installed in the basement around the same time. This was an improvement on having to use the earth closet housed in the yard outside. Gas lighting was also introduced into the rooms in the 19th century. At first they used the so-called fish-tail burners, in which the naked flame was directed upwards. This was later replaced by the more efficient covered mantel gas lighting, which enabled the flame to be drawn downwards. On Saturday, one of the guides at the Geffrye Museum gave a demonstration of how such fish-tail gas lighting worked. The flickering light would have driven me mad and it produced too little light to have been able to read or sew by for prolonged periods.

The two rooms on display are staged as how they might have looked in the late 18th and the late 19th centuries. The former is more sparsely decorated compared to that of the 19th century, when advances in mass production meant that even the relative poor of the almshouses could afford to furnish their rooms with a greater range of cheap manufactured goods than had even been available to the middle classes of early generations. (as the period rooms in the main museum demonstrate).

I do not know how typical of their periods the almshouses at Croydon or Shoreditch were but they are far more appealing to me than many of the present-day counterparts that I have seen.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Craven

There are only two types of person who can strike terror onto my heart, owing to the havoc they could wreak in my life: my hairdresser and my dentist. Yesterday I went along to the latter for a routine check-up. Although the practise is located on the other side of London in Islington, I have been going there since childhood. The original dentist retired a number of years ago. Even though the practice is no longer convenient for me to get to, I value the level of expertise and service that I receive. Equally important is the fact that I am treated on the NHS (National Health Service), saving me a small fortune compared to what I would have to pay if I went private. It always strikes me as irritating when Americans perpetually mock the condition of English teeth. They should take a good hard look at the teeth of the poor in their own country. For such people, a dentist is often deemed a luxury they simply cannot afford. Judging by pictures of him taken before he became a major Hollywood star, Tom Cruise’s teeth were no paean to American dentistry before he became a screen success.

I hate going to the dentist but I would hate having to wear dentures even more if I failed to receive regular treatment. My dentist checked my teeth and said I needed a filling. Then he added that if he were me, he would have the tooth taken out as it was just a nuisance.
“Where is it?” I asked, fearfully, imaging returning home with a visible gap at the front of my teeth.
“It’s your wisdom tooth.” the dentist explained, pointing it out on a chart.
“Then I can’t have it done now, “I said relieved. Based on my horrendous experience of having wisdom teeth extracted in the past, it would be something I would need to psyche myself up to have done again.
“Yes you can have it done today and it would be more convenient and cheaper too.”
“Okay.“ I said reluctantly, trying to calculate the additional costs of the treatment. It came to the princely sum of £45.00 in total. The dentist handed over yet another form for me to sign agreeing to the treatment before he began to yank out the troublesome tooth.

My original dentist always used to have me read through magazines while I waited for the injection to kick in. Consequently, it rather alarms me when modern dentists want to start working straight away.
“That hurts,“  I squawked as I felt the clamp tightened on the doomed tooth. The dentist apologised and waited a little longer before starting anew. This time I did not feel any pain but the intense pressure and the gruesome sound effects were not pleasant. The tooth extracted the dentists placed a pad of gauze in my mouth to stem the flow of blood.
“Ann kooo, “ I mumbled, glad to escape the lair of the dentist once more.

I decided to make my way to Stoke Newington to examine anew some of the sites I mentioned previously in other posts. Now closed for major renovation, the Georgian mansion in Clissold Park is where I took my mother for coffee the day before she died. The neighbouring Tudor church of St Mary’s was immortalised by Edgar Allan Poe in his story William Wilson.” Poe wrote (I) “thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.”  

I wonder if Edgar Allan Poe would have spotted the tomb of Elizabeth Pickett in the graveyard of St Mary’s? The unfortunate young woman died on 11th December 1781 "in consequence of her cloaths taking fire the preceding evening.” If he did, I wonder if it later inspired a story?

Close to the ancient parish church of St Mary’s is the site of the former manor house school that Edgar Allan Poe attended from 1817-1820. Now it is a wine-bar called the Fox Reformed. Having established which side of the road the manor house school was actually located on and given its antiquity, it must surely have been the very same building that had once been owned by the Dudleys, kinsfolk to the great Earl of Leicester. Being related to the Queen’s evergreen favourite, the Dudleys were honored with a visit by Queen Elizabeth I when she came a-calling in the 16th century. Across the road is Sisters Place, built in 1714 and the site of the former medieval mansion of Edward de Vere.  The latter is thought, by some, to be the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

I then went to Yum Yum which had been featured on Gordon Ramsay’s the F-Word and came second in his contest to find the best rated Thai restaurant in the UK. Housed in a former 18th century mansion, it was one of those buildings I had never been able to access as a child. The restaurant ground and basement floors show no trace of the original mansion inside, but it is possible that features remain in the upper floors, which appear to be used as offices. Queen Mary I of England was reported to have been devastated by the loss of Calais, the last English possession in France. She is said to have claimed that if her corpse should ever be cut open, they would find the word “Calais” engraved upon her heart. Red duck curry would be engraved upon my stomach as it is one of favourite dishes of all time 
In homage to Edgar Allan Poe, I ended my day with a trip to the atmospheric 19th century Abney Park Cemetery. Poe would not have been familiar with the cemetery itselfm as it was simply parkland attached to Abney House when he was at school. Today the cemetery is a nature reserve and seems very popular with dog walkers. I did not wander far from the entrance, being of the belief that I had more to fear from the living than the dead and wanted to be able to leg it to safety should the need arrive. The most famous grave I found was that of William Booth, the 19th century founder of the Salvation Army. I took a number of photographs of the various stone-angels close by. One of which caught my attention, had roots growing up its back. As it was both snowing and growing dark, I decided the cemetery was becoming far too spooky for my liking and made my way home.

En-route to Chateau Brimstone Butterfly, I passed the former Highbury home and artist’s studio of Jack the Ripper. The crime-writer Patricia Cornwall holds the belief that Jack the Ripper was none other than the painter William Sickert and has spent considerable time and effort trying to prove her point. Credited with creating the detective fiction genre, Edgar Allen Poe would doubtless have revelled in trying to unmask the true identity of Jack the Ripper, had he been alive to do so.